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A Guide for Parents Who Are New to the NICU

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Dear New NICU Parents,

Welcome! Congratulations on your amazing gift.

I know you’d much rather be in your own room snuggling your baby on your chest, but alas, life has brought you here. Please know you’re not alone on this journey.

This is your Day 1. Breathe.

You’ll undergo orientation for everything that’s happening where and how to wash your hands, what you can or cannot eat or drink (Nothing, unless you’re nursing. Then water), who your doctors are (Yes plural), what team you’re on and who your discharge nurse is. You’ll learn the term “assessment” and watch bright lines and waves on black monitors. Don’t worry they’ll make sense soon. You’ll learn about the bed your baby is in. You’ll figure out what medicines he or she is on. You’ll get frustrated, and that’s OK. When you go to find a soda to get some sugar in you because you haven’t eaten in two days, you’ll realize there isn’t one ounce of real sugar in this place. You’ll get nervous when you realize only two people are allowed by your baby’s bedside, because you need support from your family, friends or both. You might not think so, but you’ll get through it. You might be terrified, but you’ve got this. You’ve got more courage than you know.

By Day 5, you’ll figure what time doctors actually make their rounds, not the assumed or expected time. You’ll figure out you must first listen to their round and then ask questions when they’re done. You’ll start to pick up on how to help with baths, stretches and, hopefully, dressing and diapering. You might still be recovering. Give your body grace to heal.

On Day 15, although I secretly hope you’re already home, you’ll start to pick up on which primary nurses love your little one like their own. You’ll start to strategically steal the good rocking chairs. You’ll know by now how to take temperatures. You’ll know which sound is an alarm and which alarm is a feeding. With all that walking through the hospital, you’ll wear sneakers more and flip flops less. You’ll figure out, although the cafeteria has a few junk food items, the real food (i.e. M&M’s) are in the vending machine on Floor 3. Or ask another NICU Mama she usually has at least half a chocolate bar in her bag.

photo credit: Baker Baker Photo
photo credit: Baker Baker Photo

It’s Day 29 and you’ve mastered the five-minute I-don’t-really-care shower. You’ll notice pajamas are just as acceptable as the outfit you’ve been wearing three days in a row. By now, you’ll have mellowed out a bit. You’ll know when it’s OK to trust the amazing nurses and get out. I highly suggest when this time comes to choose a nap over anything else. You’ll feel guilty at first leaving your little one, but will realize you need to take care of yourself as well.

Day 52 and you’re on autopilot. Just warning you. It’s OK to coast for a while. This can be a long haul, but you can do it. You’ll be oddly thankful for those rushes of adrenaline when they come. You’ll start calling some of your doctors by their first names. They might even cry with you when answering hard questions. It’s because they love your kiddo. It’s not just their job, it’s their passion. And if it’s not, find a new doctor. Feel free to talk to patient advocacy. That’s your choice.

At this point you’ve seen many babies come and go after only a few days. Outwardly, you’ll be happy for them. Inwardly, it’s OK to grieve. It’s OK you’re longing for that day. 

By now I hope with all my heart you’re already home.

Day 64: You’ll be drained. But that’s expected. You’ll be frustrated. It’s OK to be. You’ll be more comfortable changing a diaper with wires than without. You’ll soon get to bring in new clothes. The simple task of washing them will make you feel like a mommy. You’ve figured out there’s no sugary drinks anywhere within a 10-mile radius of the hospital. You know the nearest coffee shop and exactly which restaurants deliver after 11 p.m. You’ll start forgetting what level you parked your car. Sadly, you’ll probably see a baby pass away. Your heart will be torn out of your chest. You’ll panic. You’ll cry. It’s OK. Let the emotions roll. You’ll start thinking what if, but don’t let yourself go there. Focus on the good. Weep with those who weep and have joy for those who have joy.

You’ll start to realize, as odd as it sounds, there really are good days in the NICU. You’ll celebrate your little one’s every milestone. Tears of joy are accepted here. Tell other mamas — we want to celebrate with you! You’ll learn that word spreads fast in this tight-knit family.

Be prepared for your life to change forever, and to witness love and life like you’ve never known before.

Originally published: July 8, 2015
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